Woolworths aims to halve its number of GM food products by November 2015

Submitted by: Nadia Shah, Wednesday, November 12, 2014

<p>Woolworths has committed to halving the number of GM products within its private label food range over the next year. [Image Source: Woolworths]</p>

Woolworths has committed to halving the number of GM products within its private label food range over the next year. [Image Source: Woolworths]

Currently 5.3% of Woolworths private label foods contain ingredients derived from genetically modified (GM) crop sources, the company has set a target to reduce this to 2.7% over the next year. This target was set in response to its customers’ concerns and preferences for non-GM food. The target aligns with Woolworths’ commitment to remove or replace ingredients from genetically modified crops in its foods where possible, as articulated in the company’s policy on genetically modified ingredients which has been in effect since 1999.

Woolworths is working across its supply chain to identify ingredients from non-GM crop sources that are sustainable and commercially viable in order to meet its target. “The agricultural industry has changed significantly since GM crops were introduced in South Africa in 1998. It has become more challenging to source competitively priced ingredients from non-GM sources, and we are most grateful to our suppliers who have committed to taking this journey with us,” says Woolworths MD for Foods, Zyda Rylands.

What is GMO?

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists isolate genes in plants and other organisms that are responsible for certain favourable traits and insert the gene into another organism. Foods that contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms are considered GM foods. 

GMO in South Africa

The South African government promulgated the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act in 1997, the following year the country’s first GM crops were planted. According to The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 2.9million hectares of GM crop was cultivated in South Africa in 2013, making South Africa the eighth largest producer of GM crop in the world. In South Africa the only crops containing genetically modified genes that are allowed to be grown are maize, soybeans and cotton. ISAAA’s research  found that 86.6% of maize, 92% of soya and 100% of cotton grown in South Africa in 2013 were genetically modified. There are no GM fruit and vegetables grown or on the market in South Africa. All activities regarding the responsible development, production, use and application of GMOs in South Africa is governed by The Genetically Modified Organism Act (No. 15 of 1997), its subsequent amendments and their applicable regulations.  In terms of consumer awareness, GM labelling regulations have been in effect for the past decade since R.25 of 16 January 2004:  Regulations relating to the Labelling of Foodstuffs obtained through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification came into effect. In 2011, Regulation 7 of the Consumer Protection Act No. 68 of 2008 prescribed mandatory labelling of all food containing 5% or more GMO content. 

Arguments in favour of GM foods

Advocates of GMO claim that government support of GM foods implies that they pose no greater risks to human health than conventional food. In addition, GM crops offer benefits such as accelerated growth rates and greater resistance to disease and pests. This results in better yields and also reduces the need for environmentally harmful chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. GM crops can also be “designed” to flourish despite unfavourable conditions such as unfertile soil, colder temperatures and drier climates. Overall, GM crops could potentially contribute to food security in the world.

Arguments against GM foods

On the other side of the argument, critics claim that the long term human health risks of consuming GM food are not sufficiently understood and that the risks associated with GMOs have not been adequately identified and managed. Risks include the potential for GMOs to lead to the rise of pesticide resistant ‘super-weeds’ and insecticide resistant ‘super-bugs’ which will require the use of increasingly hazardous chemicals. A further concern relates to the potential for GM plants to enter the natural environment and transfer their modified DNA to other plants, the implications that such ‘genetic contamination” could have is unclear.

Woolworths and GMO

Given the arguments for and against GM foods, Woolworths introduced GM labelling in 2000 so that customers can make informed buying decisions based on their own feelings around the GMO debate. Woolworths also checks every ingredient back to the source, and where they cannot guarantee that it was not derived from a GM crop, the ingredient is clearly labelled may be Genetically Modified (GM). “We are committed to empowering our customers to choose for themselves by providing accurate and informative labelling. Our preference is to avoid the use of GMO in Woolies food. Where we cannot, we label products that might contain GMO,” said Rylands.

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